| FTBL How Nick Saban, Alabama have handled an offseason of change - ESPN



TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban sits comfortably in his office, a room filled with tangible memories spanning decades of coaching.

Sparkling national championship rings, SEC and College Football Playoff footballs, pictures from the White House -- spoils from the lasting legacy Saban has built since arriving at Alabama in 2007. It was no surprise, then, that when Saban was asked on a recent spring afternoon about Georgia's recent rise to the top of the sport, his answer centered on longevity.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for them and what they do, and they have a really good program, but at the same time, I think we have a really good program," he said. "I don't think based on a year or two ... if you look at the 15-year consistency and performance that we've had here, not only in terms of the games that we won, but the graduation rate, personal development programs, career development for a lot of players, how well our players have done in the NFL. Our goal here is you're going to create and have a better chance to be more successful in life because you came here.

"Georgia has won two national championships in a row, so I'd say for the moment they are the best. They've proven on the field that they are the best for the last two years. But success is not a continuum for us. It's not a continuum for anyone."

During his tenure at Alabama, Saban has simultaneously replaced both coordinators three previous times (2008, 2018 and 2019). He has even replaced both coordinators and his starting quarterback before (in 2018). Never before, until this year, has Saban had to replace a Heisman-winning quarterback and two coordinators -- all while trying to reestablish Alabama as the best team in the SEC West, the conference and the entire country.

Let's not overdramatize the state of the Tide ahead of Saturday's A-Day Game at 3 p.m. ET in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama lost two road games last year by a combined four points, including a one-point overtime loss at No. 10 LSU and a three-point loss at No. 6 Tennessee. The Tide are still No. 2 in ESPN's Preseason Football Power Index, with the second-best chance (20%) of winning the national title behind No. 1 Ohio State (37%). But this is a unique challenge even for Alabama, where every high school recruit who has stayed with Saban at least three years has won a national championship.

It has been two seasons without one.

"The standard here is to be a champion," said Alabama defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry. "That's all we know."

It's also why Saban said Alabama has gone all out this spring to get back to the College Football Playoff. The 2022 season was unusual not just because Alabama lost two games and didn't win the SEC West, but also because the Tide were hobbled by uncharacteristic mistakes -- penalties and average play up front. The receivers struggled to get open and the running game was inconsistent. Saban's defense hasn't finished in the top-five nationally since 2017. The defense snagged just seven interceptions last fall, the team's fewest in the Saban era, and the Tide return just 38% of their defensive production from last season -- seventh lowest among FBS teams.

So Saban hired 30-year-old offensive coordinator Tommy Rees from Notre Dame and brought back longtime defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who was Saban's first coordinator when he was hired in 2007.

"We have two new coordinators, so new energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas are all beneficial," Saban said. "Hopefully they'll help us get these guys to play with a little bit more ... discipline to be able to execute on a more consistent basis."

Saban said when he reflected on last season, there were "a lot of factors" that contributed to the team falling short of its potential, including relationships amongst players and leadership. He questioned the overall commitment "to the principles and values in the organization." McKinstry said there has been more of an effort this offseason in developing "a brotherhood."

"We've been doing team events like going to Top Golf, and just having more team meetings and talking to former players, getting what they've been telling us, like what they used to do," he said. "We are being a brotherhood, and that just makes us play harder for each other. ... You're playing for somebody you can't let down. Somebody is trusting you."

Many argued No. 5 Alabama should have been one of the top four teams in the CFP last season -- an argument that gained a second wind after Georgia pushed around TCU in the national championship game. But as a two-loss team that didn't win its division, Alabama was a tough sell in the selection committee meeting room.

According to ESPN's Bill Connelly, Alabama ranks No. 125 in the FBS in total returning production (40%) and Saban said there's "a lot" of work to do because the team is so young. It's the first time since 2015 there's no clear heir at quarterback. With Bryce Young off to the NFL draft, the top contenders this spring have been Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson. Milroe played in eight games for the Tide, with his lone start in a win against Texas A&M. While his ability to run was impressive, Milroe struggled at times throwing the ball last season, completing just 31 of 53 pass attempts for 297 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.

Milroe has the edge in experience, but Simpson was the No. 2 dual threat quarterback in the 2022 recruiting class. Alabama also signed Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan in the 2023 class, but the Tide haven't started a true freshman at quarterback since Jalen Hurts in 2016 -- the only freshman to start under Saban.

"I don't like to make comparisons between players, but I think they're all capable," Saban said. "I think the two young guys are very capable, but the issue with freshmen all the time is how mature are they in terms of their ability to focus and develop?"

With Texas coming to town in Week 2, there's not much time for rehearsal. The Longhorns are arguably the Big 12's most talented team this fall, and a win could help Alabama impress the selection committee if it comes up short again in the SEC race. Alabama isn't only chasing Georgia; it's also looking up at LSU, which exceeded expectations and won the West in the first season under coach Brian Kelly.

"People made mental mistakes, too many of them," said Alabama running back Jase McClellan. "Just knowing what to do, simple mistakes, and that's something we've worked on. Towards the end of the season we cleaned those up a little bit and things got better."

Saban said he's not worried about what others say about the program. The pressure, he said, comes internally.

According to ESPN Analytics, the SEC again enters this season with the best chance to have a playoff team (97%) and the best chance to have multiple teams finish in the top four (51%). It's certainly possible Alabama and Georgia finish in the top four together, even if the Tide finish as one-loss SEC runners-up, or as a one-loss team without a conference title (that would be a likely scenario if Alabama loses a close game to LSU again, but beats everyone else, including Big 12 champ Texas). It's even possible for Alabama to finish in the top four as a two-loss team -- assuming the Tide still go on to win the West but lose by a small margin in the SEC title game.

What Alabama can't do, though, is do what it did last year.

"We're just bringing everybody in and making sure that people really have that on their mind and think that we can do it, because if you don't think it, it's not possible," McKinstry said. "I'm pretty sure everyone knows that being a champion is very possible."

Anyone who's ever walked into Saban's office can see it.
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